Close to Home: Let’s not forget those health care first responders — like Congress has

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As with so many in Sonoma County, ringing phones awakened health center doctors and staff in the early hours of Oct. 9. Learning of the growing emergency across the North Bay, they quickly began mobilizing to address an urgent health care situation.

Thanks in large part to their quick and efficient actions, medically vulnerable fire victims received critical health care services, averting a potential crisis. In the days and weeks after the fires, health centers proved their worth many times over.

Community health centers are indeed health care first responders. This makes it even harder to fathom that congressional polarization is putting the continued existence of this crucial community resource in deep peril.

The threats to human life and property from the wildfires were apparent to all. But many are unaware that the fires could have caused a dangerous, uncontrollable health care crisis.

Two of Sonoma County’s major hospitals were evacuated, unable to function normally for days. Meanwhile, Santa Rosa Community Health’s largest center, Vista, was destroyed. Skilled nursing facilities and group-living facilities evacuated medically and mentally fragile residents directly to shelters. Many evacuees fled burning homes without their prescribed medications and arrived in the shelters injured or ill and in need of health care.

Health center providers and staff, many of whom lost homes themselves, arrived on the job in the shelters and health centers ready to care for anyone in need. They showed up to do what comes naturally to those who choose community health as a profession — to respond to the call when community health care needs arise. As quickly as shelters were established, health center staff arrived to organize crisis clinics and, with the help of many volunteer providers from our local health care community and beyond, to staff them around the clock.

We don’t often think of community health centers as first responders, but the reaction from health centers was immediate — starting at 3 a.m. on the first morning of the fires and continuing until the very last evacuee shelter closed.

Health center staff reacted quickly, partnering with hospitals, other health systems and the counties to meet evacuees’ needs. We should be proud of this response, but we must also learn from this experience. What worked well in the response, and what didn’t? How can the hospitals, counties, health plans, health centers and provider groups organize now to prepare our health system for the next disaster?

As our communities begin a challenging and long-term recovery process, we will remember the critical role that our community health centers play — not just in times of crisis but also as an everyday pillar of our primary health care system. In Sonoma County alone, health centers provide ongoing medical care to more than one in four residents. Amid the chaos and confusion of the fires, health centers and their staff members were on the job to continue to deliver quality care to those most in need.

Right now, federally funded health centers in California are on the precipice of losing almost 70 percent of their annual mandatory federal funding — roughly $300 million — because Congress has not appropriated the funding. The deadline to reauthorize this funding passed on Sept. 30, and Congress has yet to take meaningful bipartisan action to assure the stability of health centers. Every resident in California should be shocked by this reality.

Congress needs to get past partisan politics and commit to reauthorizing community health center funding. It is the only way to ensure that health centers in California, particularly in fire-affected areas, will have the means to rebuild and continue to serve their communities.

Suzie Shupe is chief executive officer of Redwood Community Health Coalition, a network of 17 community health centers with more than 45 sites in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Yolo counties. She lives in Santa Rosa.

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